The New Century Chamber Orchestra brought its first series program under new music director and concertmaster Daniel Hope to Palo Alto’s Oshman Family Center on Friday, Feb. 8. The theme was recomposed music: 20th and 21st century composers reworking older music for their own needs and in their own styles. It made for a fascinating selection.
The Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis is one of the best-known works by Ralph Vaughan Williams. It’s a rich but austere work of complex and layered variations on an English Renaissance hymn tune. Small irregularities of intonation and tone quality in the playing actually helped differentiate the three conversing sub-groups into which the string orchestra is divided.
The Capriol Suite by Peter Warlock is a simple arrangement of a set of lively French dances from the same period with a light and whimsical spicing of modern dissonance added. The orchestra played this in an appropriately dry and crisp manner. This helped make the harmonic clashes sound purposeful and on the mark.
Largest and newest of the contributions was the 18th-century work of Antonio Vivaldi recomposed by the contemporary German composer Max Richter. Tired of the background-music ubiquity of what is nevertheless a masterpiece, Richter takes his revenge. He goes through the entirety of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons concertos — four works, three movements each — chopping up each movement’s contents and reworking them thoroughly in his own idiom.
This procedure is different from Vaughan Williams’ variations or Warlock’s arrangements, but Italian modernist Luciano Berio was doing much the same thing as Richter in the mid-20th century. The result, though, gave the impression that Berio was merely putting grubby fingerprints all over hitherto beautiful music.
Richter’s Vivaldi doesn’t strike me that way. I do enjoy his musical language more than Berio’s. It’s basically minimalism of the kind promulgated by Philip Glass or Michael Nyman in the 1980s and 1990s. A typical Richter movement begins by quoting Vivaldi nearly verbatim, with a punchier orchestration. Gradually he’ll add or subtract beats or pulses, as if slowly turning the music sideways. Vivaldi’s fast runs evolve into a repeating ostinato on top of which Hope as soloist will play a long slow melody derived from the harmonic pattern, very much a la Glass. Then the music abruptly stops without a cadence and we’re on to the next movement.
In other movements, Richter might chop up motifs and patterns and give them to every violinist in the orchestra in an overlapping chatter, change the underlying harmonies into a typical minimalist chord sequence or play the melody quietly with hesitant pauses over hushed held chords. Each movement was a surprise; all were instantly recognizable as homages to their originals.
Two arrangements by Benjamin Britten completed the program: the Chacony in G Minor by the 17th-century’s Henry Purcell arranged for full string orchestra and an edition of the slow movement of Robert Schumann’s Violin Concerto. This is a curious work that was long buried in an archive and only released in the 1930s, 80 years after its composition. Yehudi Menuhin was one of the first violinists to champion the concerto. He wanted to play the slow movement at another musician’s memorial, but Schumann had written it to flow seamlessly into the finale. So Britten volunteered to create a brief self-contained conclusion to the movement, letting it end quietly and hopefully.
Though Menuhin was Hope’s mentor, he was never his teacher. Their styles are normally unalike. But in playing the Schumann arrangement, Hope altered his typically light and sweet tone into a deeper, thicker middle range that faintly echoed Menuhin’s unique manner.
The orchestra’s playing was charming as usual. Also as usual were some notable and distinctive solos from section leaders, particularly violist Anna Kruger in the Vaughan Williams and cellist Michelle Djokic in the Richter and Schumann.
New Century’s next program has the theme “Forbidden music.” It will feature works composed by victims of the Nazi Holocaust and other music banned by the Nazis or Soviets. It comes to Palo Alto March 22.